Salim Ayyash

Salim Ayyash is a Lebanese Hezbollah agent accused of leading the assassination team that bombed the convoy of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on February 14, 2005. In addition to Hariri, the explosion killed 21 others and wounded 226. In August 2020, the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) convicted Ayyash in absentia of leading the assassination team.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 5, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf. Ayyash faces a new trial in absentia at the STL in 2021 for attacks on three Lebanese politicians between 2004 and 2005.“Pre-Trial Judge sets tentative date for start of trial in the Ayyash case,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, February 26, 2021, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/media/press-releases/pre-trial-judge-sets-tentative-date-for-start-of-trial-in-the-ayyash-case; Agence France-Presse, “UN court to try Hezbollah member for Lebanon attacks,” Arab News, February 26, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1816326/middle-east.

At approximately 12:49 p.m. on February 14, 2005, Hariri and Lebanese parliamentarian Bassel Fuleihan entered Hariri’s armored vehicle in Beirut to attend a lunch appointment. At 12:55 p.m., a suicide bomber exploded a van outside the St. Georges Hotel as Hariri’s vehicle approached.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 18, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf. Suspicion quickly fell upon Syrian and Hezbollah forces. At the time of the explosion, Syria maintained its occupation of Lebanon and Hariri led a vocal opposition to the Syrian regime in the Lebanese parliament. Hariri also sought Hezbollah’s eventual disarmament.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 14, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf.

In March 2005, a Swiss forensics team arrived in Beirut to begin an investigation into the explosion. They were later joined by Dutch, Spanish, Lebanese, and British investigators.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 24, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf. The U.N. secretary-general also sent a fact-finding mission that month. That mission recommended the creation of an independent international investigation. On December 13, 2005, the Lebanese government requested the United Nations create a tribunal to investigate and try those responsible for the attack. On May 30, 2007, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1757 to create the STL to investigate the 2005 bombing.“STL Close-up,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/sites/default/files/documents/promo/STL_Close-up_en.pdf. The STL began its investigation on March 1, 2009, from The Hague, Netherlands. It was the first international tribunal to address an act of terrorism as a distinct crime.“STL Close-up,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/sites/default/files/documents/promo/STL_Close-up_en.pdf.

On June 30, 2011, the STL indicted Ayyash for the 2005 explosion. The court also indicted Hassan Anaissy, Assad Sabra, and Mustafa Badreddine. Of the four, Ayyash and Badreddine were linked to Hezbollah.Nada Bakri, “Tribunal Names 4 in ’05 Killing of Lebanese Leader,” New York Times, June 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/world/middleeast/01lebanon.html. Ayyash was also related to Baddredine through marriage.“Rafik Hariri tribunal: Who were the four accused over 2005 assassination?,” BBC News, August 18, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25757367. Ayyash was charged with conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act; committing a terrorist act by means of an explosive device; intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosive materials in association with the death of Hariri; intentional homicide with premeditation by using explosive materials in association with the death of 21 others; and attempted intentional homicide of 226 others. On February 1, 2012, the STL ruled that Ayyash and his co-defendants would be tried in absentia.“Salim Jamil Ayyash,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 3, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/the-cases/stl-11-01/accused/salim-jamil-ayyash. In October 2013, the STL filed charges against suspected Hezbollah member Hassan Habib Merhi and subsequently added him in absentia to the trial of Anaissy, Sabra, and Ayyash.“Hassan Habib Merhi,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed August 6, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/the-cases/stl-11-01/accused/hassan-habib-merhi; “Special Lebanon tribunal indicts fifth suspect in Hariri assassination,” Deutsche Welle, October 10, 2013, https://www.dw.com/en/special-lebanon-tribunal-indicts-fifth-suspect-in-hariri-assassination/a-17150855.

The STL publicly called on the defendants to appear in their own defense. None of them did. On January 16, 2014, the STL began a trial in absentia of Ayyash and his alleged co-conspirators in relation to the 2005 attack that killed Hariri.“Case Information Sheet – Salim Jamil Ayyash – Ayyash et al (Case number STL-11-01,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/sites/default/files/documents/cis/Ayyash_Case_Info_Sheet_EN.pdf. STL prosecutors argued Ayyash and his co-conspirators used five mobile phone networks to coordinate and execute the attack. Prosecutors presented evidence specifically linking Ayyash to those networks.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 48-62, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf. Prosecutors also accused Ayyash of purchasing the van the attackers filled with explosives and aiding the preparation of a false claim of responsibility following the attack.“Rafik Hariri tribunal: Who were the four accused over 2005 assassination?,” BBC News, August 18, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25757367.

The STL’s charter gives it authority to investigate other attacks in relation to the February 14, 2005, bombing. On October 1, 2004, an explosive device in Beirut wounded Lebanese politician Marwan Hamadeh and one other and killed Hamadeh’s bodyguard. On June 21, 2005, an explosion in Beirut killed Lebanese politician Georges Hawi and wounded two others. On July 12, 2005, an explosion in Beirut killed one and wounded Lebanese politician Elias El-Murr and 14 others.“Indictment in the Connected Cases made public,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, September 16, 2019, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/media/press-releases/indictment-in-the-connected-cases-made-public. In 2019, the STL launched a second investigation into Ayyash’s involvement in those attacks.“Information Sheet – Ayyash Case (Case number STL-18-10),” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/sites/default/files/documents/cis/STL-18-01_Case_Info_Sheet-EN.pdf. That trial commenced on February 5, 2020.“Key Developments,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/the-cases/stl-18-10/key-developments.

On August 18, 2020, the STL found Ayyash guilty of all charges in the Hariri case while clearing Anaissy, Sabra, and Merhi. The STL found that Ayyash led the assassination team responsible for the explosion. According to the tribunal, Ayyash conspired with Badreddine but the tribunal did not conclude Badreddine’s specific role in the plot.“The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 5, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf. Baddredine died in May 2016 explosion in Syria, which Hezbollah initially blamed on Israel and then on Sunni jihadists.Tom Perry and Laila Bassam, “Top Hezbollah commander killed in Syria,” Reuters, May 13, 2016, http://in.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-hezbollah-idINKCN0Y405A; Richard Spencer, “Hizbollah blames jihadists, not Israel, for killing of military chief Mustafa Badreddine,” Telegraph (London), May 14, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/14/hizbollah-blames-jihadists-not-israel-for-killing-of-military-ch/. The STL chose not to pursue the criminal case against Badreddine after his death.“Mustafa Amine Badreddine – former Accused (deceased),” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed August 6, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/the-cases/stl-11-01/accused/mustafa-amine-badreddine. The court did not find direct evidence that the Syrian regime or Hezbollah’s leadership played a role in the bombing, but the STL acknowledged both had a motive to eliminate Hariri.The Prosecutor v. Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – Summary of Judgement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 18, 2020, 15, https://www.stl-tsl.org/crs/assets/Uploads/20200818-F3840-PUBLIC-Summary-of-Judgment-FILED-EN-FINAL.pdf.

Ayyash grew up in southern Lebanon and served as a firefighter in the country’s Civil Defense.“Family of convicted Hezbollah member denounces ‘injustice,’” Associated Press, August 27, 2020, https://apnews.com/7720304c3fde938223f498939a52246c; Ronen Bergman, “The Hezbollah Connection,” New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/the-hezbollah-connection.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article. According to U.S., European, and Middle Eastern former security officials, Ayyash belonged to a Hezbollah assassination team called Unit 121, which is controlled by Hezbollah’s top leadership. Ayyash allegedly commanded the unit while Badreddine directly authorized Hariri’s assassination, according to the former officials. Hezbollah has denied involvement in the bombing.Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick, “Man convicted in 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister was part of a Hezbollah hit squad, officials say,” Washington Post, August 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/man-convicted-in-2005-assassination-of-former-lebanese-prime-minister-was-part-of-a-hezbollah-hit-squad-officials-say/2020/08/25/543cbf1a-e6e0-11ea-bc79-834454439a44_story.html. Ayyash’s family in Lebanon has denied his involvement and argued that he was in Saudi Arabia at the time of the attack.“Family of convicted Hezbollah member denounces ‘injustice,’” Associated Press, August 27, 2020, https://apnews.com/7720304c3fde938223f498939a52246c. On December 11, 2020, the STL sentenced Ayyash in absentia to five consecutive life sentences.“Hezbollah militant Salim Ayyash given life sentences for Hariri killing,” BBC News, December 11, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-55271428. Ayyash remains at large. If he is captured, he will have to be retried.Marlise Simons and Ben Hubbard, “5 Years After an Assassination Rocked Lebanon, a Trial Ends on a Muted Note,” New York Times, August 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/world/middleeast/hariri-assassination-trial-hague.html.

The STL is also investigating Ayyash’s role in attacks on Lebanese politicians Marwan Hamadeh, Georges Hawi, and Elias El-Murr between October 2004 and July 2005. An October 2004 attack in Beirut on Hamadeh wounded the parliamentarian and one other and killed Hamadeh’s bodyguard. A June 2005 attack in Beirut killed Hawi and wounded two others. A July 2005 attack in Antelias killed one and wounded 15, including El-Murr, who was serving as Lebanon’s defense minister.Agence France-Presse, “UN court to try Hezbollah member for Lebanon attacks,” Arab News, February 26, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1816326/middle-east. In February 2020, the STL initiated a trial in absentia of Ayyash in relation to those attacks.“Key Developments,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/the-cases/stl-18-10/key-developments.

Ayyash is charged with five counts in relation to the attacks:

On February 25, 2021, the STL scheduled a new trial for Ayyash in relation to those attacks. The trial is scheduled to begin June 16, 2021.“Pre-Trial Judge sets tentative date for start of trial in the Ayyash case,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon, February 26, 2021, https://www.stl-tsl.org/en/media/press-releases/pre-trial-judge-sets-tentative-date-for-start-of-trial-in-the-ayyash-case. On March 2, Hezbollah fighters reportedly fired on Lebanese forces attempting to arrest Ayyash at a house in Beirut. Hezbollah acknowledged Lebanese security attempted to arrest a suspect but denied its forces fired on them. Ayyash remains at large.Najia Houssari, “Hezbollah gunmen fight off bid to arrest Rafik Hariri’s killer,” Arab News, March 3, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1818776/middle-east.

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